John Riley, Park President, Sea World San Diego
What is your business background?
I became president of SeaWorld San Diego in November 2010. I began my career with SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment as a teenager in 1985 at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Va., spending my summers selling popcorn and soft drinks. I continued working at the park while pursuing my bachelor’s degree from the College of William & Mary. I held a variety of positions in the culinary operations at Busch Gardens before being named as the department’s director in 1998. I left Busch Gardens in 2001 and during the next eight years, held various leadership positions in the merchandising and culinary departments at other SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment parks, as well as at the corporate level. Before becoming president of SeaWorld San Diego, I served as park president of Busch Gardens and Water Country USA in Williamsburg. At SeaWorld San Diego, I am fortunate to lead a team of nearly 4,000 employees, and a mammal, bird, fish and reptile population of nearly 10,000. We’re responsible for making sure the millions of guests who visit the park each year receive the amazing educational and entertaining experience they expect. I am, happily, what many consider a lifer in this business.
What is the best way to keep a competitive edge?
The theme-park industry is extremely competitive. We must vie for the consumers’ interest and discretionary spending with a myriad other recreational and entertainment activities. Thus, it is critically important to consistently provide our visitors the best guest experience combined with the highest level of service. At SeaWorld, we want to bring our guests new exciting and experiences each year. This year, we opened our new Turtle Reef attraction which is the largest exhibit in the world dedicated to sea turtles. We also launched our spectacular new “One Ocean” Shamu Show and opened a delightful interaction exhibit called Animal Connections. A marine-life park like SeaWorld relies not only on first-time visitors but repeat visitation. We must work every year to attract new visitors as well as give our repeat guests a good reason to visit again. In 2012, we will be opening a mega attraction called Manta, which will include the park’s first roller coaster. We are very excited about Manta and we know our guests are going to love it. We know that a competitive edge can dull quickly, We work hard to keep our edge sharp.
Best advice you ever got...
The best advice I ever got might be the simplest advice. My first boss in this business told me to remember to personally thank people for what they do. Just verbally recognizing the hard work that people do is a powerful thing.
Most influential book...
The Essential Wooden, by John Wooden. There are a lot of parallels in the leadership of coaches and managers. To me, Wooden was one of the great leaders of our generation. He assembled great talent, but created a team orientation even with super stars. It is also remarkable that he did not scout or focus on his opposition. His philosophy was to improve your performance to make the team better and better, and not to be distracted by the other team.
What are the challenges your industry is facing right now?
It’s a great time to be in this industry. Despite economic challenges, many families are finding theme parks to be a great vacation value. We have made some big changes to ensure that families get the most of their visits to our park. Recently we broke with more than 40 years of tradition by making our Skytower and Skyride free with admission to SeaWorld. We continue to offer special resident values for San Diegans. Products like the Fun Card make it easy to visit SeaWorld over and over at a great value, even when family budgets are stretched.
What's new a Sea World San Diego?
We’re in the midst of a building boom at SeaWorld. We just launched our all-new interactive Turtle Reef attraction. Not only does Turtle Reef include a breathtaking 300,000-gallon aquarium that exhibits nearly 50 endangered and threatened sea turtles and thousands of tropical fish, it includes interactive educational activities and a ride called Riptide Rescue. The attraction is great for visitors of all ages. We also launched “One Ocean,” our new Shamu Show, this summer. “One Ocean” boasts new killer whale behaviors, a new set and a message that encourages guests to care about the world we share. Next May we will open Manta, a mega attraction that includes a roller coaster and an amazing bat ray aquarium and touch pool. We’ll also be announcing other park enhancements, events and attractions as we prepare for our 50th anniversary in 2014.